it was tom-atha all along

Tom Wambsgans Finally Becomes a Real Person, Involved

Photo: Graeme Hunter/Graeme Hunter

It always had to be Tom.

So many of the most devastating moments in “All the Bells Say,” the season-three finale of Succession, were about the Roy siblings working through the dynamics that either they or the audience already understood — that they have been divided from the start, that unification against their father would be the only way out of the endless cycle, and that Kendall’s bottomless well of guilt was fueling the most recent turn around the Waystar Royco merry-go-round of pain. Seeing them acknowledge all of that was mesmerizing. Kendall, crouched on the gravel, admitting to his deepest shame while foregrounded against a row of trash bins? Roman finally mustering up the courage to link arms with his siblings against his abusive father? Even Connor at long last getting fed up and demanding everyone else acknowledge his existence? These are extensions of the dynamics Succession has been seeding for three seasons, and even though none of them was an enormous surprise, they are satisfying precisely because they are such plain, obvious developments of what Succession has long told us about who these people are.

Kendall revealed his secret. Roman picked his siblings. Connor … okay, look, Connor almost had a flash of revelation there and then it was immediately dampened by his delusional enthusiasm about marrying Willa. Until the last minute of the finale, the only sibling who didn’t achieve some new level of insight about their situation was Shiv, and it’s because while Roman and Kendall are making decisions based on accepting their fucked-up family dynamics, Shiv has spent this entire season ignoring, dismissing, and belittling the person closest to her, the person who was her (and perhaps our) biggest blind spot: Tom Wambsgans.

From the beginning, Tom’s outsider status has been his chief weakness. In season three, Naomi Pierce gives Kendall a watch for his birthday, and it’s a signal of how little she really knows him, how vast the gap is between what she sees externally and how Kendall truly feels. But back in the very first episode of Succession, Tom is the person trying to give someone in the Roy family a beautiful, expensive, meaningless watch. He’s so sure this watch will be a lovely gesture, and everyone in the family (including his fiancée!) knows this gift will just make Logan see him as even more pitiable, even more out of the loop. Greg’s a court jester and Connor’s an idiot, but Tom has been the most tragic of Succession’s powerless lackeys. Tom was No Real Person Involved.

But season three has been about the quiet, often sidelined transformation of Tom Wambsgans. While the three main Roy siblings were scheming and striving and stabbing one another in the back, Tom became fully disillusioned. The family was willing to let him go to prison, and a part of him longed to go, hoping he would be able to escape the terrible limbo of being proximate to power but never respected enough to grab any for himself. The prospect of prison might also have been a way to demonstrate his worth to the family. In essence, it was Tom still trying to give Logan a present he might actually value.

When that possibility was removed from him this season, Tom finds himself once again at loose ends. Every scene between him and Shiv is more agonizing than the last: She tells him to his face that she does not love him, and she treats his proposal that they have children like a potentially canny power move they should keep in their back pocket (but definitely not, you know … act upon). Tom’s exhaustion is palpable. He is so downtrodden that he almost disappears again. Logan begins the finale episode reading a book about Mog aloud to his grandson with the strong implication that it’s about Kendall — Mog the cat is so tired she’s ready to give up entirely; the parallel to a possible suicide attempt is pretty explicit — but it works just as well as a hint about what’s to come for Tom. After all, given the events of this season, it’s Tom who’s “dead tired,” and it’s not hard to imagine that somewhere inside Tom is the desire to “sleep forever.”

Except that just like Mog, a little bit of Tom stays awake “to see what would happen next.” His status as the perpetual outsider finally turns to his advantage because he’s the only one who can see all the pieces of the game. He’s also the only one who has been so close to losing everything that he’s willing to take a huge risk. He can finally play the game because he’s no longer terrified of losing. (Remember the game Monopoly? Tom has the confidence to walk away.) None of the siblings has paid attention to their mother as a person; all they can see is her horrible new husband and the hilarious pettiness of this fight over a posh London flat. The fact that Tom has been ignored so long becomes his most lethal weapon. Shiv doesn’t fathom a world where giving Tom crucial information could ever play to her disadvantage, and the nightmarish dynamics of their marriage get turned on their head. And Tom knows all too well what it feels like to be kept just beyond the pale of the Roy family power structure. He can imagine exactly why Caroline might enjoy finally having a powerful piece to play.

So when Tom arrives at the Villa of Important Business in Tuscany and gets that clap on the shoulder from Logan, it is an admission that he has fully given up a game that, mortifyingly, always seemed to matter to him quite a bit. His marriage to Shiv could never be his path to power; she was only ever going to be the mechanism of his continued diminishment. She could not see him as a real person, and if he’d continued playing by the rules of their supremely awful marriage, he would never have become one. But it is also proof of the exact thing that has been true of Tom from the beginning: His status as an outsider made him most capable of changing the calcified, inner-focused family paradigms. While everyone else is blinded by their history and the way things have always been, Tom is the only one who can see clearly.

The look on Shiv’s face when she realizes what’s happened is absolute perfection. The thing she never fathomed has actually come to pass: Tom Wambsgans finally gave Logan Roy a gift he truly wanted.

Tom Wambsgans Finally Becomes a Real Person, Involved